The Need for Psycho-Social Support in Education
Penny Atkinson, Volunteer Writer
The Breteau Foundation believes in working towards a world where every disadvantaged child can access quality education regardless of their background or location. In the contexts we work in, children may be growing up in environments affected by conflict, violence, humanitarian crises and as a result, may experience increased cases of poor mental-health. With chronic stress often being a consequence of such adversity, there is a growing need for Psycho-Social Support (PSS) in education and a better understanding of the challenges faced in providing it.
What does PSS in education look like?
Psycho-Social Support is a general term for any non-therapeutic intervention that helps a person cope with life’s stressors. After a crisis, such support can facilitate recovery and aid individuals to develop emotional resilience. Rather than being a ‘one size fits all’ approach, PSS recognises the importance of the social context and adapting to that environment.
Within education, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) comes under the umbrella of PSS. Amongst its aims are to teach children to understand their emotions, feel empathy, make decisions, and build healthy relationships. Teaching practices often involve cooperative and project-based learning, which can aid in fostering communication, emotional literacy, and self-awareness. Studies show that when teachers are able to employ effective learning methods such as discussion, role play, art and group work, then the potential to improve children’s psychosocial skills is greatly enhanced .
The effects of chronic stress on children
Highly stressful and traumatic events or situations that occur in childhood are commonly known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) . If not dealt with early on, these events can result in maladaptive coping strategies – such as avoidance or withdrawal. The effects can be long lasting, with ACEs linked to mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood . Beyond that, it is not only an individual’s mental health that is affected. As chronic stress is liable to damage an individual’s biological, as well as their psychological regulatory systems,  early adversity can dramatically affect health across a lifetime, resulting in conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. When considering even just the immediate impact of these stressors on a child’s behaviour, let alone the longer-term dangers, it would be remiss not to employ PSS within education.
In extended conflict situations, access to safe and supportive education requires ‘multi-layered, integrated support systems within learning spaces, families and community settings.' But when social stigma prevents a community from creating a discourse around mental-health issues, or there is a shortage of regional infrastructure or resources, it is unrealistic to place this responsibility on teachers alone; many of whom already tend to work longer hours, under pressure, with few resources. In addition, they may also be traumatised by the same circumstances as their students. Expecting them to assume responsibility for an area in which they are not qualified, can be detrimental to both themselves and the students in their care.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of employing PSS in schools (and the consequence of not addressing the impact of trauma) are too important to ignore. Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent, or even reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response, with safe schools and non-formal learning spaces being some of the most beneficial environments for children and youth during a period of uncertainty. We have seen the positive impacts of PSS in informal learning spaces like our Mobile Bus Team. The team, based in West Bekaa, Lebanon, works with displaced children, many of whom are suffering from trauma. As well as teaching literacy and numeracy, the team provides therapeutic support through creativity and play. Such activities enable the children to express themselves while building confidence in a safe environment.
Providing PSS in education enhances academic learning, helping students to develop coping skills in the face of adversity. Our Theory of Change recognises that quality education needs to be tailored and relevant to the variety of educational contexts we work in. In the context of working with disadvantaged children, social and emotional development has become crucial to our work and its lasting impacts have proven invaluable for our communities.